Kazan is fashion. In the last years, the Tatars’ capital became unavoidable destination for thousands of tourists from abroad. The first (in demographic and symbolical terms) non-Russian population of Russia still attracts strong scientific interest. Since the 1990s, Tatarstan was often presented as a model among federal entities of the Russian Federation and sometimes as an alternative for democratic and multicultural development of post-Soviet Russia. Written by a scholar, Associate Professor at Skidmore College, who has been conducting fieldwork in Tatarstan since 1995, this book of political science in action has been written in a dithyrambic vein, for the best and the worse. The main interest of the constructivist approach that considers sovereignty as a “share cognitive map” instead of an empirical quality is to treat sovereignty proclaimed by Tatarstan in 1990 as the guiding principle of its political, economic and cultural development. Tatarstan’s “sovereignty project” (“process of formulating a new vision of itself informed by both Soviet-Era and contemporary international understandings of sovereign statehood and then attempting to making that vision a reality on the ground”, p. xxi) is considered through different angles: federal, international (recognition by international audiences), political, cultural and ethno-national aspects.
The first chapter provides a short ethnographical and historical overview of the Tatars and Tatarstan, from the conquest of the Kazan Khanate by Muscovy in 1552 to the impact of Soviet ethno-federalism on the form and timing of the parade of sovereignties of 1990-1991. Neglecting the prehistory of ethno-national movements during Soviet times, the author presents national movements in Tatarstan in 1989 as the result of Gorbachev’s policy. The sovereignty projects in the Baltic are presented in their initial stage but the comparison with Tatarstan’s is unfortunately not carried on. The author convincingly states that the very ambiguity of the concept of sovereignty has given both Tatarstan and the federal centre the conceptual freedom to elaborate the compromises that characterise any functional federal system. However the lack of biographical data on the main actors of this process (who are “Tatarstani élites”?) gives the discussable impression that the fight for sovereignty was inevitable and consensual.
Chapter two examines the consequences of Tatarstan’s sovereignty project on the development of federal relations in Russia during the Yeltsin era. To study the course of relations between Moscow and Kazan, the author analyses the March 1992 referendum, the negotiations with Moscow, and provide a content analysis of both the Constitution and the 1994 Moscow-Kazan Treaty. An illuminating point is made on the passport question and the 1998 Tatarstani citizenship law. The author defends the thesis that while Tatarstan pushed the Russia’ federal system to its limits, it never intended to break it. Nevertheless, paying no attention to the perceptions of federal élites, the analysis neglects its consequences on the whole political transition in Russia, especially on the territorial disorders provoked by introducing a high degree of asymmetry in the Federation.
The next chapter explores other aspects of Tatarstan’s project: its social welfare policies in favour of a more state controlled process of market reform and the institutional and symbolic attributes of statehood that Tatarstan has pursued since 1990 and which, according to the author, helped to strengthen Russia’s position in the international community, especially in the world of Islam. The author details President Shaimiev’s vision of what a modern state should be, but she neglects to present the reactions of the population, especially against Shaimiev’s “ambitious goal of eliminating unsightly, decrepit and unsafe housing in Kazan’s city centre (p. 60).” It is also surprising to read on the educational reforms without mention of the reception of the decision to introduce mandatory teaching of Tatar language to non-Tatar children.
In the fourth chapter, the author focuses on the ethno-national revival for the titular Tatar nation and doubtfully states that ethnic relationships remained peaceful due to the effort at developing a civic sense of Tatarstani nation accompanied by extensive multicultural programmes for non-Tatars. Interesting details are provided, for instance on the creation of the Museum of National Culture, but the last impression is that official discourses are taken for granted on the commitment to civic multiculturalism as if there was no opposition in Tatarstan to the Tatar nation building project. Chapter five deals with the recent evolution of Russian federalism and the Putin administration attempt to recentralise Russia and to reverse Tatarstan’s sovereignty project. Alongside with federal reforms, the process of harmonisation of Tatarstan’s Constitution in 2002 is analysed in detail. The author retraces the fight against separatists engaged by Moscow after the Beslan massacre in 2004, and describes Tatarstan’s resistance to Putin’s authoritative rule. If the book would have been published one year later, Shaimiev’s dismissal and the appointment of a new Tatar president by Moscow would have end this story.
The author finally concludes that Tatarstan’s sovereignty project has been a positive force for the development of both federalism and cultural pluralism in post-Soviet Russia. Written by a specialist who knows Tatarstan from within, the book is useful for political scientists studying sub-state autonomy movements, the mechanics of ethno-federalism and inter-ethnic relations especially within other European nations currently facing the same policy dilemmas. As far as its contribution to Central Eurasian studies is concerned, the assessment has to be more balanced. Being filled with admiration for the model of Tatarstan cannot justify the black-and-white vision provided on Russian policy. The federal policy tried to lay down a Russian nation-state project of civic membership which concerns all Russian and non-Russian population of the Federation of Russia. The “alarming trends towards recentralisation and unitarism that emerged during the Putin era” was for instance welcomed by . . . Tatar opposition in Bashkortostan as a way to fight against the authoritarian regime of Bashkir president Rakhimov on the Tatarstan model. The absence of comparison with other national republics in Russia drives to a kind of idealisation of the Tatarstan regime. As to the contestation of the accusations of ethnocracy in Tatarstan through a condemnation of “universal trend toward authoritarianism in Russia (81),” it is not a very convincing argument.